Super Bee
by Tom Piantanida
forum: Super Bee
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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Super Bee


           It couldn't possibly be happening! But it was! They were mutating—all of them. Well, not all of them, but enough to endanger the mission.

           Vantu had witnessed the first few mutations and had passed them off as normal background. He knew that every generation experienced a few mutations, nearly all of them fatal, but as the numbers mounted, so did his fear. They'd taken every conceivable precaution; everything had worked perfectly—until now.

           From the outset, the plan had been to occupy the alien planet inconspicuously until they had sufficient numbers to overwhelm the dominant indigenous species. Vantu had spent years in planning the invasion. He and a select few had been altered to synthesize telomerase at every replication, rendering themselves immortal. And immortality is what they contributed to their offspring, their copious offspring.

           Vantu and the others had survived the tedious and frequently lethal process that changed their form without impairing their intellect. Survivors had journeyed to the new planet where their arrival went unnoticed. Such was their size.


           "There's no way that we could just barge in and take over," Kramf said. "They have gluon weapons that they don't dare use on each other, but they'd damn sure use them on us!"

           "Look," Omnacle replied, "we've been there for decades now. The gravity is right; the atmosphere is acceptable; and they have the resources we need. And they're not even using it."

           Omnacle surveyed the representatives. He was certain that at least two hundred of the Ambassadors would side with him, but he needed at least thirty more before calling for a vote.

           "No one disagrees with that," Kramf replied. "It's the best we've encountered. It's just that we've waited too long. If we'd have invaded them when they only had nuclear weapons—and only two of them, at that—we would have succeeded."

           Chief Counsel Clarn raided his hand. "We've been over this ground before. What we need is a solution, not a restatement of the problem, or recriminations for past mistakes."

           A murmur of agreement ran through the assembled Ambassadors, and when it subsided, Clarn continued. "The dominant species has become too sophisticated for us to even consider challenging them. We'll have to find another source of deuterium."

           As Clarn's statement was translated and disseminated to the 442 Ambassadors, cries of derision arose in several hundred languages. Clarn unleashed wave after wave of infrasonic pulse to bring order to the house, but to no avail. Finally, the Ambassador from Skskvidne rose and remained standing as the assembly came to order.

           Clarn recognized the standee, and listened for the translation of statement. "Honorable Chief Counsel, I must disagree with your assessment…"

           Clarn cut him off. "My assessment? What I reported is the opinion of the finest minds on Neve!"

           The Skskvidnean Ambassador assimilated the translation. "I do not dare to disagree with the combined intellect of Neve. My disagreement is with the Esteemed Chief Counsel's assessment of what constitutes the dominant species on the alien planet."

           When the laughs and jeers had subsided, Clarn asked the Skskvidnean to proceed.

           "What you are calling the dominant species," the Skskvidnean continued, "is merely the most technologically advanced. Neither their population nor their biomass qualifies them as the dominant species."

           Clarn dismissed the comment with a wave of his hand. "A minor point. And please don't waste the Counsel's time with such trivia."

           The Skskvidnean Ambassador refused to yield the floor. "Begging your pardon, Exalted Chief Counsel, but the presumptive 'dominant species' has been unable to subjugate species that exceed their own numbers by many orders of magnitude."

           Clarn had heard enough. "Thank you for the Biology 101 lecture, but the council has more important business at hand."

           Once again, the Skskvidnean Ambassador refused to be seated. "Omniscient Chief Counsel, my point is that if we were to disguise ourselves as the de facto dominant species, we would not be detected by the presumptive dominant species."

           "And what might the de facto dominant species be?" Clarn asked, trying unsuccessfully to keep the scorn he felt out of his voice.

           Hesitancy revealed his uncertainty, as the Skskvidnean replied, " Bacteria…"

           Laughter obliterated the remainder of his statement until Clarn pulsed for order.

           "And are you saying that we should disguise ourselves as bacteria and invade the alien planet?"

           When the assembly was once again pulsed into silence, the Skskvidnean Ambassador replied. "Imperious Chief Counsel, what I suggest is not that we disguise ourselves as bacteria, but as another species that vastly outnumber the dominant species, a species that the dominant species tolerates, even cultivates."

           Clarn was now interested. "Such as what?"

           "Wondrous Chief Counsel, I would not deign to suggest a specific species. I leave that to the best minds of Neve. I merely assert that there are many such species within whose members we could hide ourselves until we had sufficient numbers to successfully capture the alien planet."

           It took several pulses for Clarn to regain order. Krampf was the first to speak. "An interesting concept. I thank the Skskvidnean Ambassador for bringing it to our attention. But, I'm certain that it is fraught with hazards."

           "Not as many as you might think," Counselor Wromb said, "but not practical, either. We would need an organism with more sensory modalities."

           "And why is that?" Clarn asked.

           "We would have to retain our self-awareness as Nevean in our host species or we would, in fact, become them."

           "Go on," Clarn said.

           "So our host species would need to draw information from the environment, information that would have survival benefit."

           "Are you saying that the host species should have vision?"

           "That's exactly what I'm saying. And they should have nociceptors, like taste and smell to avoid toxic substances; vibratory sensors to hear or feel acoustic waves; tactile receptor; kinesthetics; etc."

           "So what kind of creature are we talking about?" Clarn asked.

           "Actually, I would like to ask the Ambassador from Skskvidnea to chair a subcommittee to identify the best possible species and report back to the counsel."

           Clarn scrolled through the roster on his rhabdoscreen. "Ambassador Hdlvrena, would you be so kind as to accept this appointment?"


           Over the next several months, Hdlvrena assembled a subcommittee of molecular geneticists, microbiologists, neurophysiologists, and embryologists to examine the myriad species from the alien planet that might safely harbor Nevean genes. The subcommittee recruited scientists in other disciplines as difficulties in their domains arose. While deliberations were conducted within the walls of several universities, outside the walls, sectors of the citizenry protested the idea of tinkering with the Supreme Being's creation.

           "It's saying that we're as good…no, better…than the Extreme Ones!" Jalil shouted. "And what's it all about? It's about deuterium!"

           The small crowd cheered as Jalil waited to continue. Finally, he could wait no longer. "I have undeniable proof that the High Council has artificially created the deuterium shortage for their own benefit! To make us give them the power they need—the power they've always wanted—to conduct their sacrilegious genetic experiments!"

           As the cheering subsided once again, Jalil continued. "This is not about stealing the deuterium from another planet before they discover how to fuse it into every other element—we could have done that generations ago! It is about creating a race of slaves—creatures to serve the will of the High Council!"

           One of the crowd shouted to be heard above the others. "Then why have so many of the fusion plants been shut down??"

           "Pressure," Jalil said. "Pressure to get what they want! Could they say that there was a deuterium shortage if all the plants were operating? Of course not! So they shut them down!"

           The doubter continued. "Couldn't they have created the slaves you claim they want to create several generations ago, too?"

           "Yes! Undoubtedly!" Jalil continued. "But it is only because of our constant vigilance, our constant resolve, that they have been unable to make us slaves!"

           Civil Units arrived as Jalil was finishing his response, and the crowd quickly dispersed. But not before the Civil Unit had Face-T-Scanned every protestor.


           Hdlvrena was the best possible candidate to chair the subcommittee. He had a broad background in the sciences, and before becoming Ambassador from Skskvidnea, he had been a professional "head hunter." By specializing in the "wet" sciences, Hdlvrena was able to justify a huge expenditure of time keeping himself abreast of scientific developments and breakthroughs. Every member of the subcommittee knew that each statement, each assertion, would be thoroughly scrutinized for veracity.

           After a few false starts, the subcommittee focused on arthropods as the most likely hosts. Like the arthropods, amphibians—closer physiologically to Neveans—underwent a metamorphosis that activated dormant genes that transformed the creatures into adult form, but the transformation from aquatic to terrestrial form would prove problematical. Echinoderms, which underwent metamorphosis from bilateral symmetry to radial symmetry, likewise had gene clusters that were only expressed in the adult form, but marine invertebrates were quickly ruled out as unworkable.

           Isopods were examined closely as a potential host species, but were excluded as the plan developed. The host species would need to be more mobile than the earth-bound isopods. Several species of insects were considered, but in each case, the dominant alien species had developed toxins to eradicate the species.


           "The honey bee," Hdlvrena said, "is the best compromise. They're bred and cultivated by the dominant species; they live in large colonies where they rear their young; and they are mobile."

           "But we have no captive specimens of the alien honey bee," Wromb replied.

           "This is true," Hdlvrena said, "but our collection of alien fauna is meager anyway. There are no other species among our specimens that would fulfill the requirements.

           Clarn had been listening to the subcommittee report for the better part of two hours. Finally, he'd heard enough to plan a course of action. "So you're saying that whatever species we use would have to be captured on the alien planet and returned here for study."

           "Exactly so, Chief Counsel," Hdlvrena replied, "And since we need to return to the alien planet anyway, we should capture not only the primary candidate species, but all those on the prioritized list."

           Clarn knew the answer to his next question, but he asked it nonetheless so that it would be before the High Council. "Won't that set the plan back by four years?"

           "At least that," Hdlvrena answered, "even if the collection takes only days. But, I'm afraid that our genetic modeling cannot proceed without the native species."

           "Then it shall be done!" Clarn stated, ending further discussion. He commended Hdlvrena for his expeditious and thorough report, and requested that he relinquish his ambassadorial duties so that he might accept a High Council appointment as Director of Research on Project B, as the plan was to be called.

           Hdlvrena was not fit for space travel; he'd fantasized about becoming an Envoy when he attended university, but settled for a Neve-bound career as a government science advisor. And that too many years ago.

           His choice to head the collection mission was Vantu, a seasoned Envoy with a strong background in zoology, both Neve's and the alien planet's. It had been an easy decision; no other Envoy possessed Vantu's unique knowledge of the alien planet's insect species. Hdlvrena was certain that Clarn would approve his candidate.

           The alien planet was at an awkward distance. Vantu's craft would have to accelerate for nearly a year and then immediately start to decelerate to the capture velocity of the alien planet. Decelerating for a year was standard procedure, but there was usually an extended period of coasting between the acceleration and deceleration phases of the voyage. Had the alien planet been even a light-month closer, Vantu could have convinced the High Council to give him a C2 ship, but the range was just too great. Hdlvrena had taken that into account when he'd given the High Council his estimate of the mission duration.

           Vantu carefully selected the rest of the crew. Although he, himself, had been an Envoy for more than thirty years, he realized that a second, and possibly a third Envoy should be among the crew to cover contingencies. Two geozoologists, little more than Under Chairs, comprised—along with Vantu—the ecoteam. A Chief Engineer and a Med/Surg would keep the machine and the crew, respectively, in good health.

           Chief Council Clarn rubber-stamped Hdlvrena's approval of Vantu's crew and consist, although he was taken aback by the cost of the mission. Hdlvrena reminded him, "Without this expenditure, our ultimate mission—acquisition of the alien planet's deuterium—cannot proceed. And if it does not proceed, we will surely be fusing helium in not more than twenty years. I don't need to tell you how costly that will be."

           Clarn agreed that he did not need to be reminded about the cost of converting their fusion plants from deuterium to helium. He approved the mission budget over the objections of several ambassadors.


           Vantu's tardyonic craft was fueled and provisioned within a week. It was agreed that because of the abundance of deuterium on the alien planet, only outbound fuel would be loaded; the extra volume inside the craft had been fitted with more commodious living, dining, and recreation quarters. None of the crew objected, although the engineer insisted on a sufficient supply of hypercompressed deuterium granules to see them safely through any conceivable adverse conditions. Vantu carved the extra space out of the engineer's living quarters.

           Although both geozoologists were in mid-term at their respective universities, an edict from Clarn to the Chancellors was honored immediately. Replacements would be found for Under Chairs Inaltera and Tfift.

           Tfift nearly declined the four-year appointment, stating that her young would not develop appropriately if she were to leave them now. Vantu and the Chancellor of Tfift's university succeeded in convincing her that not only would her brood be adequately cared for, but also she, herself, would return to Neve to find the Chair of Geozoology at Hrdlicka University would now be hers. Of course, Inaltera was similarly promoted.


           The two-year journey was uneventful, save for the near-overload of the broad-spectrum antiphasers as the craft approached the alien planet. Radio-frequency emanations from the alien planet had increased by several orders of magnitude since Neve's last probe. Except for graviton signatures detected but not deciphered by laser interferometers in the U.S. and Australia, the team's arrival went unnoticed.

           Chief Engineer Bavistrand immediately configured the deuterium extraction and compaction unit to replenish their fuel from one of the alien planet's oceans. If only the inhabitants of this planet realized the resources it had… Bavistrand pondered.

           Tfift and Inaltera divided the task of collecting samples of the alien planet's hymenoptera. Tfift concentrated on species of bees, while Inaltera collected social wasp specimens, which were the alternative species if bee genetics proved daunting. When their primary objectives were achieved, both geozoologists turned to other related species, including solitary wasps, wingless wasps, and ants. To minimize the probability of detection, collection was limited to the time necessary to refuel the ship. This constraint—strongly objected to by both geozoologists—severely curtailed the choice of species. Only those indigenous to the southern hemisphere were captured.

           They had no more than lifted off for the return trip when Tfift started grousing. "A four year round trip and only four days to collect specimens," she said, thinking of the time away from her brood. "It's hardly seems worth it!"

           "The point of this trip," Bavistrand retorted, "is to ultimately acquire the planet's deuterium, not to catch bugs!"

           Both geozoologists busied themselves on the return trip with transgenic experiments. One by one, they tested the ability of each species to breed true as increasingly lengthy segments of extraneous DNA were inserted into their genome. The clear winner was one of the solitary wasp species that Inaltera had captured. After considerable experimentation, Tfift and Inaltera identified homologous DNA sequences in the best species of bees and in the solitary wasp.

           Systematically splicing non-homologous sequences allowed the geozoologist to create a chimera that was anatomically and physiologically bee-like, but tolerated insertion of extensive sequences of extraneous DNA. Months before landing on Neve, several colonies of chimeric bees had formed, and the remaining species had been culled to a manageable size. Tfift and Inaltera had earned their promotions.

           Complete genomic sequences of the native species and of the chimeras were transmitted to Neve prior to the craft's arrival. Molecular geneticists on Neve, working with the fully sequenced genome of their own species, quickly identified significant numbers of homologous sequences in the chimera. They would not need to introduce these Nevian genes into the chimera genome, which would leave room for the non-homologous sequences.

           Although the Nevian karyotype was different from that of the chimera, the molecular geneticists worked around the problem by splicing kinetochore sequences into the chimera genome at locations appropriate to the Nevian karyotype and methylated them so that they would not express—until the time came for expression.

           The High Council kept Vantu and his crew apprised of the genetic developments on Neve. Still, the travelers were surprised to find on their return that molecular geneticists had been unable to compress the Nevian sequences sufficiently to satisfy the maximum-insertion-length constraints imposed by the chimera genome. Because the scientist had been unable to insert all of the non-homologous Nevian sequences into the chimera genome, the project had stalled. Out of respect for Tfift and Inaltera, the Nevian scientists had withheld that information from them.

           Nevian scientists involved in the project had scheduled a meeting with Tfift and Inaltera to get their first look at the alien species, and to inform the travelers of the impasse. The returning geozoologists briefed the assembled scientists for more than two hours, explaining in great detail the habitats, nutritional requirements, social behaviors, etc. of the native species and of the chimera, now called Super Bee.

           When it was her turn to speak, Gavizon, the Chief Scientist assigned to the project, lauded Tfift and Inaltera for their magnificent accomplishments, and only then - in supplicative tones - did she admit the defeat of the Nevian team. "I'm afraid I have some bad news. The Super Bee karyotype contains too little DNA to hide the Nevian genome—even if we exclude homologous regions."

           Gavizon scanned the faces of the returning geozoologists for reactions. Sensing only intense interest on their part, she continued. "The problem is if we insert all of the Nevian genome that we need to, some of the Super Bee chromosomes become so large that meiosis—and, therefore reproduction—is precluded."

           Before Gavizon had finished her statement, both Tfift and Inaltera broke into uncontrollable laughter. It was many seconds before Gavizon could ask the obvious. "What is so funny? This is a serious problem!"

           Once again, the two geozoologists broke into laughter. Finally, when Tfift could catch her breath, she sputtered, "It doesn't matter!"

           "What doesn't matter?" Gavizon asked. "If Super Bee can't reproduce, it's useless!"

           "But it can reproduce," Tfift said between gasps for breath.

           "I don't understand." Gavizon said.

           By this time, Tfift had composed herself. "Super Bee has two forms of reproduction, sexual and asexual."

           "Asexual reproduction in a higher life form?" Gavizon asked. "Unheard of!"

           "Maybe on Neve," Tfift continued, "but very common among the alien planet's arthropods."

           "Which means," Inaltera added, "that the karyotype is largely irrelevant. "Make Super Bee tetraploid—or hexaploid for that matter—if you need more room for our own genome. Unless, of course, there's a dosage-compensation mechanism for some gene expression."
Gavizon found her mouth gaping. "We never would have considered parthenogenesis."

           "Don't feel bad," Inaltera said. "We wouldn't either if we hadn't witnessed it in the colonies. It is by far the dominant form of reproduction in Super Bee."

           "So," Gavizon continued, "you don't see a problem with doubling the size of the genome?"

           "Like I said," Inaltera reiterated, "only if there's a dosage-compensation mechanism… and I'm betting that there isn't."

           The assembly erupted in applause, following Gavizon's lead.

           Given the newfound flexibility in genome size, molecular geneticists were able to hide the entire non-homologous Nevian genome within a tetraploid bee species. When expression of a few Nevian genes proved mutagenic, researchers relocated them within the bee genome. In mere months, tetraploid bees were parthenogenetically reproducing phenotypically normal bees.

           Each success in hiding increasingly greater stretches of the Nevian genome provided new challenges for the ultimate expression of that genome. In addition to the biological constraints, ethics interceded to slow the project. While work continued on developing a method to inhibit expression of the bee genome and simultaneously promoting expression of the Nevian genes, debated raged over the ultimate fate of expressed chimeras, and, indeed, on the need to destroy Nevian embryos generated in the process. An uneasy peace was reached between scientists and ethicians when it was decided—mandated, actually—that any Nevian embryos would be destroyed before reaching the blastula stage of development.

           The ban on allowing embryos to develop past the morula stage imposed on the experiments the requirement that the Nevian clones to be released on the alien planet be perfect in every way - without having done the necessary experiments on Neve. It required that development from the morula stage to full gestation proceed normally, without testing that requirement.

           In a converted suite of offices in the bowels of the National Laboratory of Genetics, a team of scientists worked without official sanction to determine whether developmental anomalies would occur beyond the morula stage of development. They did! Through intermediates, the results of the illicit experiments were funneled to the "official" team of molecular geneticists, who frequently had no idea why they were testing yet another modification of their gene-expression procedures.

           Instead of months, the research required more than a year to complete, a year in which the first of Neve's fusion generators was taken off-line for conversion to helium fusion.
Hdlvrena was righteously irked. "You're cutting this really close, Vantu! It's been nearly two years and we haven't even scheduled a launch yet."

           "Couldn't be helped," Vantu replied. "You—better than most—know what research is: ninety-percent failure."

           Before Hdlvrena could respond, Vantu continued in a more conciliatory tone. "You must also know that I had nothing to do with the selection of the Skskvidne III as the first fusion plant to be retrofitted. It was purely economics."

           "That's not the way I see it! Ever since Clarn was deposed, Skskvidne has been the target of ridicule. It wasn't my fault that the plan had to be put off for four years."

           "Well, it was your plan!" Vantu said.

           "And a good one, too! If we had had the necessary specimens, like we should have had, we'd be swimming in heavy water now instead of fusing helium.

           "Trust me," Vantu said. "In another four years, we'll have a constant supply of deuterium."

           "I doubt it!" Hdlvrena said. "It'll take what—ten, twelve replications before initiating expression of our own genes?"

           "Something like that, but the first four rounds of replication will occur en route. The ship is designed to hold twenty attendants and sixty-four thousand Super Bees. We've tried to speed pupation, but we've found a lower time limit—even at elevated temperature—that can't be breeched without massive mutations."

           "How many will be launched?"

           "Our target is eight thousand, but we won't know for certain until just before launch."

           By launch time, only four thousand viable Super Bees had been developed. It was a disappointment that Vantu would have to live with. The one bright spot in the plan was that he'd convinced Inaltera that she should take a sabbatical leave from the university and accept the position of Onboard Science Coordinator. Neither Vantu nor Inaltera needed to mention that with her last brood in pupation, Inaltera would come into season during the trip to the alien planet.


           Although centrifuge studies had shown that only a small fraction of Super Bees would succumb to the N-loads experienced during launch, nearly half failed to survive the launch. Inaltera jettisoned the corpses, and watched as others died during the acceleration phase of the trip.

           With the original population severely depleted, the first space-borne generation failed to bring the ship's complement to the original four thousand. When the second generation brought the Super Bee population to fewer than sixteen thousand, Vantu had to abandon the original plan.

           "We won't launch four landers, as we'd originally planned. With fewer than sixteen thousand Super Bees aboard, we'll launch only a single lander. That way we'll be able to give the bees our full attention."

           "That's risky, Vantu," Inaltera said. "If there's a problem with the lander, the whole project will be compromised."

           "We've discussed that before, Pet."

           "Don't call me that!"

           "Okay, as you wish," Vantu continued. "The risk of reducing the population of Super Bee to fewer than two thousand per colony far exceeds the risk of landing a single viable colony."

           "But..." Inaltera stammered.

           "The decision has been made… Pet."

           Without a word, Inaltera stomped from the room, deeply regretting how badly she'd misjudged Vantu. She'd just have to live with her decision. Hormones certainly alter perception.


           Alicia felt sluggish as she slipped out of bed. "Brush your teeth," her mother shouted up to her. "I'll have breakfast ready in a minute."

           "Brush your teeth!" Alicia mimicked her mother under her breath, as she slogged to the bathroom.

           "Quit it!" she shouted at Muggs, her Cocker Spaniel, who greeted her every morning with a muzzle. Muggs, unjustly chastised, slinked away and ran down the stairs.

           Alicia immediately regretted shouting at Muggs. It wasn't his fault that she felt this way. Not sick, but not quite well, either.

           "You have to eat more than that, Sugar," her mother said as Alicia pushed way her half eaten bowl of Cheerios.

           "I'm just not hungry this morning."

           Her mother pressed a hand to Alicia's forehead. "No fever. Are you feeling alright?"

           "Yeah, I guess so."

           "What test do you have today?" her mother asked.

           "Oh, Mom!"

           "What test?"

           "Social studies… but I'm not too worried about it."

           "Uh huh."

           Alicia felt worse at school. She didn't hurt anywhere; she just felt punky. At recess, she declined an invitation to play—gossip mostly—with Jane and Emily, and wandered over to the corner of the schoolyard.

           She'd just slid down to a sitting position when a flash in her peripheral vision drew her attention. A dark-colored sphere, just slightly larger than a basketball dropped almost to the ground and disappeared.

           Alicia looked to the sky to see where the sphere might have come from, but found nothing. The sphere reappeared just as suddenly as it had disappeared. As Alicia turned her attention once again to the sphere, she watched as bees—thousands of them—swarmed out of holes in the sphere's surface. The bees whirled in clouds and then flew directly toward her.

           Alicia jumped to her feet and screamed as the swarm overtook her, and then just as quickly it departed for the nearby woods. Her scream alerted the schoolyard, and immediately students ran for the safety of the classrooms. The shouts and screams of her classmates masked Alicia's screams as she witnessed numerous creatures exiting the sphere and crawling swiftly toward the woods.

           "I saw it!" Alicia insisted. "It was right there!" She pointed to the place where the sphere had been.

           "Then where is it?" Mrs. Owens asked. "It couldn't just disappear."

           "But it did, Mrs. Owens! I told you that's where the bees came from."

           "Yes, I know, Alicia, but you said other things—bugs—came out of it, too."

           "They weren't bugs—I know bugs. They were something else."

           "Then what were they? Where did they go?"

           "I don't know what they were, but they weren't bugs! They looked at me!"

           "Really. Alicia? How many eyes did they have?"

           "I couldn't tell how many eyes they had, but I know they looked at me!"

           "We've checked the place where you said the sphere was, but there's nothing there. The grass isn't even pushed down."

           "I saw what I saw!" Alicia protested.

           "Are you feeling okay?" Mrs. Owens asked.

           "No!" Alicia answered as the tears started to flow. "I want to go home."

           Mrs. Owens called Alicia's mother, who came to pick her daughter up. Mrs. Owens intercepted her and ushered her into the office while Alicia waited on the notorious bench outside the Principal's Office.

           "Alicia was attacked by a swarm of bees," Mrs. Owens said, "although she wasn't stung."

           "Is that what upset her?"

           "No," Mrs. Owens said, "There's more. Alicia insists that some other kind of creature came out of the sphere that landed next to her."

           "A sphere? Have you called the authorities?"

           "There was no sphere," Mrs. Owens said. "And no creatures. I think Alicia had some sort of hallucination."

           "That's absurd! Alicia doesn't have hallucinations, and I'll thank you to keep those thoughts to yourself."

           "Please…" Mrs. Owens said, "don't take this personally. I think Alicia is coming down with something, and that caused her to misperceive what actually happened."

           "And what would that be?"

           "I think she just saw the bees swarming and panicked."

           "Alicia is a very level-headed child!"

           "I am well aware of that," Mrs. Owens said, "and that makes me suspect that she's coming down with something."

           "I see. She didn't feel quite right this morning - she even shouted at the dog - so you might be right."

           "The school nurse says that Alicia's temperature is elevated—slightly—but that could be due to the excitement."

           They called Alicia into the office and asked her to tell them about the sphere again. It was obvious to Alicia that Mrs. Owen didn't believe her. She wasn't sure about her mother.

           On the ride home, her mother asked her to relate the story again, and stopped her repeatedly for clarification. At home, her mother asked her to draw a picture of the creatures she'd seen emerging from the sphere. Even with her outstanding ability to draw, Alicia wasn't satisfied with her efforts to depict the creatures. They were just so different from any others she'd ever seen. And now she was sure that what she saw on them were clothes, rather than skin.

           When the adrenaline of the day waned, Alicia found herself exhausted, so she took a bath and changed into her warmest flannel pajamas. As she slid between her sheets, she called Muggs, who apparently had forgiven her—as dogs do—for shouting at him. In minutes, the two friends were asleep.

           The following morning, Alicia's mother called Mrs. Owen. "Alicia is going to be out of school for a while. She has the chickenpox." A joint laugh ended the conversation, and the "sphere episode," as it came to be called by Alicia's family.


           To save energy, Vantu let the landing craft descend at an alarming rate, only starting the repulsion engine at the last possible moment. He'd selected a wooded area adjacent to the cemetery in a tiny rural community. It was not until the craft had cleared the trees that Vantu recognized his error; there was a cluster of humans swarming about the surface adjacent to the trees.

           A brief lateral repulsion maneuver directed the craft away from the humans, and it was not until Vantu and his crew exited the craft that they realized that they had been observed by a single human.

           The humans were huge; they were much larger than Inaltera had imagined. She'd hoped to see one on her previous Earth trip, but had never done so. Inaltera was sure that the human had looked at her. She knew that humans had only two eyes, but she was absolutely certain that the human had fixed them both on her as she ran for cover.

           The strange loud noise that the human made terrified her. She thought about abandoning the project and running back to the landing craft, but before she had a chance, the pilot initiated repulsion and the craft disappeared. By then, the human was in full flight away from the landing site. The landing party hid among the trees bordering the school grounds.

           Alicia's tiny school was surrounded by apple orchards, which provided the major income of the rural community. Each orchard had clusters of boxed hives whose occupants fertilized the apple blossoms. A few boxes in each cluster were empty; one of those was the target.

           The swarm would inhabit a box and multiply. When that box was filled, the landing party would drive the queen from the neighboring box and Super Bees would expand into their new home. Over several months, the Super Bees would increase their numbers exponentially without human interference. When sufficient numbers of Super Bees had been created, the landing party would activate the programmable histones in their genomes, and two generations later, they would be fully Nevian. An invasion party would supply the ultimate weapon to each of the millions of Nevians.


           Vantu had no doubt that humans would fall victim to their weapon. He'd discussed the weapon with Inaltera during their previous trip to Earth.

           "We don't know exactly how it works," he said, "but it looks like it disrupts microtubule formation and function."

           "What does it do to them?" Inaltera asked.

           Vantu shook his head. "We don't know that either."

           "So," Inaltera continued, "You're going to conquer Earth with a weapon whose mode of action you don't understand."

           "Look at it this way, Pet. What would you call an organism that was unable to accomplish any metabolic function?"

           Inaltera ignored the pet name. "I'd call it severely handicapped."

           "Well, I'd call it dead. Metabolism separated the living from the dead."

           "Do you suppose it hurts?" Inaltera asked.

           "It can't hurt. Pain requires neural transmission…"

           "Which requires transport… and microtubules." Inaltera finished his sentence. "But couldn't the humans use that against us?"

           "No, Pet."

           "You got away with it once, but not twice!"

           Vantu winced. "No, humans don't have the weapon. They're are still at the stage of punching holes through their bodies to kill one another."

           "Surely they're not that primitive."

           "Trust me, P— Trust me, their most devastating weapon is still about punching bigger holes in more bodies. No finesse at all."

           Inaltera rolled away from Vantu and pulled the covers over her shoulder. "I just hope you're right."


           Word finally came that a sufficient amount of Tubulase had been produced and a ship would soon be dispatched to Earth with enough to subdue all 8.4 billion Earthlings, if necessary. The Supreme Council had debates right up to the last possible moment on the relative merits of trying to get Earth to relinquish its vast stores of deuterium willingly. Realistically, even the staunchest opponents of the conquest had to agree that once Earth knew the reason for Neve's dependence on deuterium, Earthlings would insist on knowing the secrets of fusion.

           "A C2 ship will be dispatched within the next week," Vantu confirmed. "It's time to activate the Nevian genome."


           "I can't understand it," Miley Toms said to the similarly flannel-clad farmer seated across the booth from him. "Four hives just disappeared overnight."

           "Who do you think stole them?" his companion asked.

           "Nobody stole them, Clem. The hives are there, but the bees are gone."

           Sam Burt at the counter overheard them. "I had three hives abandoned, too, Miley. When did yours happen?"

           "Near as I can tell, Sam, some time between last Tuesday and this Thursday."

           "Same here," came a voice from another booth. "I discovered six empty hives on Thursday morning."

           Shirley refilled Miley and Clem's coffee cups, and started for the next booth. "Maybe you should get Sheriff Dixon involved."

           "What'd we tell him, Shirl, that our bees quit us?"

           "Does seem strange, though," Sam opined. "Maybe Shirley's got the right idea."

           Sheriff Dixon found that bees were missing from eleven different orchards. A total of forty-four hives had been abandoned.


           Vantu had found an unused fruit cellar in the oldest section of one of the orchards. The fruit cellar hadn't been used since refrigerated storage buildings had made it obsolete nearly thirty years ago.

           "This is perfect," Inaltera said. "We can raise both generations here without being detected."

           "There's even water piped in from a well," Vantu said, "and there is plenty of local fauna for nourishment, not to mention apples in great abundance."

           "As soon as the rest of the landing party retrieves the equipment," Inaltera said, "we'll start to transform the first generation."

           Inaltera was interrupted by one of the landing party. "I don't understand why we don't just turn the bees back into us."

           "The way we've set this up," Inaltera explained, "is a two-stage procedure."

           "Yeah, but why not one stage?" the Nevian continued.

           "First," Inaltera proceeded, "we're too much bigger than the bees. We'd have to cause the bee larvae to become huge before the transformation."

           "But couldn't you do that?" the Nevian persisted.

           "We could, but there would be major risks," Inaltera said. "For instance, if we didn't delay maturation of each bee's anatomical and physiological systems by precisely the same amount, some systems would develop disproportionately, which would probably kill them."

           The quizzical Nevian nodded, but his expression showed lingering doubt.

           "And, besides," Inaltera added, "we'd have to inhibit the bee genome at precisely the same time as we disinhibit the hidden Nevian genome."

           The Nevian nodded dutifully, but without understanding.

           "This way," Inaltera continued, "we create an adult bee/Nevian larva chimera in the first generation by activating the Nevian genome while leaving the bee genome active. Then, when the third or fourth instars pupate, we inhibit the bee genome so that only the Nevian genes are functional."

           "And the beauty of this plan," Vantu chuckled, "is that the Earthlings will be delighted by how their apple crop swells from our waste products."

           It took several days to assemble the necessary equipment. The landing party worked around the clock preparing the histone deactivator, feeding and watering the captive bees, and removing larvae and pupae. Only adult bees would be transformed.

           Activation of the Nevian genome initiated a growth spurt that eventually required a molt. As more of the chimeras molted, the landing party became alarmed at the grotesqueness of the chimeric instars.

           "Don't let it worry you," Inaltera assured the workers. "The chimeras will look strange until we inhibit the bee genome. Then, they'll look just like us."

           While she was able to placate the landing party, she had to admit her fears to Vantu. "I didn't expect them to look so horrible."

           "Why not, Pet? Surely you're aware that interspecific matings frequently produce unanticipated sports."

           Inaltera worried about her own intraspecific mating with Vantu. She regretted having shed her caudal plastron in his presence. "Sports? Did you call them 'sports'? I haven't heard that term since my history of biology course."

           "What else could you call them? They aren't mutants."

           "I know. I just didn't expect to be disgusted by them."

           Vantu touched her carapace patronizingly. "Let's see what he next molt brings."

           With the second molt fast approaching, the landing party had to work in shifts to remove the shed chitinophosphatic exoskeletons. During the first molt, chimeras were observed to ingest the casts, only to succumb to acute poisoning. Although the Nevians conserved energy by recycling their casts, apparently the chimeras had not yet mobilized the enzymes required to digest polyacetylglycosamines.


           Sheriff Dixon slid into the booth across from Sam Burt. "Never did find the bees, but we have another mystery, Sam."

           Sam sipped his coffee, not wishing to rise to the bait that the sheriff dangled in front of him. "What might that be?" he finally asked.

           "Bugs! Big, ugly bugs!"

           "What kind of bugs, Sheriff?"

           The sheriff scratched his head. "I don't rightly know. I ain't never seen them."

           "Sheriff, you been hittin' the cider? You say we got bugs—big, ugly ones—but you ain't seen any?"

           "I know it sounds strange, Sam, but all I've seen are their skins—like cicada shells stuck to trees."

           "Skins, you say?"

           "Yeah, big gnarly ones—even bigger'n a cicada."

           Sam put his cup down. "Where'd you see these skins?"

           "Here an' there."

           "Is this a joke, Sheriff? I don't get it."

           "It's no joke, Sam. I sent one of the skins to the university. I'm hopin' they can tell us what we got. As big as these suckers are, it wouldn't take many to wipe out an orchard."

           Shirley returned from the last booth and poured the sheriff a coffee; she gave Sam a splash before swishing back to the kitchen. Both men watched as her hips took turns demanding their full attention. She knew they were ogling, but she'd only start worrying when they stopped.

           "You were saying…" Sam said.

           "So far I've found six of them, all close to Brown's lake."

           "You think they came outa the lake?"

           The sheriff took a swig of his coffee. "Yeah, like dragon flies. That's what I think."

           "You're a worry wart, Sheriff. Let's wait an' hear what the university guys have to say."


           The landing party reported that some Earthlings had taken a particular interest in the lake where they'd dumped the casts.

           "Do you think they found any of the molts?" Vantu asked.

           "They couldn't have. The fish practically jump out of the water to get what we throw in."

           "You'd better find another place anyway," Vantu said. "We wouldn't want to be discovered just now."

           The worker sighed audibly. "How many more molts?"

           "Two more should do it," Vantu answered. "Then the chimeras will pupate and we can inhibit the bee genome."

           "I hope the next instar looks better than this one," the worker said, as he gathered up more casts.

           "So do I," Vantu said. "So do I."

           But the next instar wasn't any better. If anything, their increased size just made them look more hideous.

           As directed, the landing party found a new location to dispose of the casts. The new lake was less convenient and required even more effort on the part of the workers. Being more than twice the distance to the first lake, the new lake significantly increased the possibility that the Nevians would be detected before they could complete their task.

           The third instar was nearly twice the size of a prepupescent Nevian. The few deaths that occurred taxed the energy and resources of the landing party, and disposal of the dead instars consumed an inordinate amount of the workers' time. The result was carelessness. Not all of the casts made it to the lake, and ultimately a trio of overworked Nevians overlooked a dead instar.


           "There's just no end to this thing," Sheriff Dixon said as he took his place in the booth with Sam and Miley.

           "More bugs, Sheriff?" Sam asked.

           The sheriff removed his hat and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. "Yeah, only bigger and uglier."

           "How big is bigger?" Miley asked.

           The sheriff waited while Shirley filled his cup. "You know that Hula Frog plug that you like so much?"

           "You mean the one that got me the Catch of the Season two years ago? That fish was—"

           "Don't start, Miley!" Sam said. "We heard about it a million times."

           Miley glared at both men and took a pull on his coffee.

           "As big as that?" Sam asked.

           "Yup, and not nearly as pretty."

           "You think them things are still growing?" Miley asked.

           "I hope not," the sheriff said, "'cause anything that size must have a big appetite."

           "How many'd you find?" Sam asked.

           "Just a couple, Sam, but I'm bettin' there's more, maybe lots more."

           "So why don't you get Brown to poison his lake with insecticide?" Sam asked.

           The sheriff sipped his coffee. "I didn't say I found them at Brown's lake."

           "Then where'd you find them?" Miley asked.

           "Davenport found one and called me. We only found one more, but we're gonna look some more tomorrow morning."

           "Any word from the university?" Sam asked.

           "Yeah, Sam, they said it's a new species. They ain't never seen anything like it. They're doin' more tests."

           "You gonna send the new bugs to them?" Miley asked.

           "Yeah, but first we're gonna get some nets and see if we can catch a live one in the lake. Then we'll send them that too."


           "Look," Vantu said to the exhausted workers, "one more instar stage and we'll be ready for the transformation."

           A unanimous groan emerged from the assembled landing party. "I think we've been discovered," one of the workers said.

           "Discovered?" Vantu asked. "How?"

           All eyes were on the worker. "When we went to the lake this morning, there were some Earthlings there poking nets into the water."

           "Then you'll have to find another lake," Vantu said.

           Once again, the workers emitted a groan, this time followed by continued grumbling. "We'd have to go even farther to get rid of the casts."

           "Worse than that, I'm afraid," Vantu said. "You'll have to find a lake that doesn't put our present location in the center of a circle of lakes.

           "Like where?" a worker asked.

           "Ideally, at a spot that's between the other two lakes, but farther out," Vantu answered.

           "Couldn't we just stack the casts here?" the worker asked. "There's plenty of room."

           "We'll discard the chrysalides here," Vantu said, "when we've inhibited the bee genome. It won't matter then if the Earthlings find them here. Then it will be too late. But for now, we'll have to find another place to dump them."


           "Sheriff!" Miley shouted. Look at this!" Miley Toms had found the dead instar that the overworked landing party had discarded.

           Sam Burt was the first to arrive. 'Well, I'll be…"

           "Nobody touches it!" Sheriff Dixon shouted, as he spotted the dead creature.

           "What the hell is it?" Miley asked.

           "Don't know, Miley," the sheriff said, "but we pulled a couple of its shells outta the lake,"

           "It ain't really a bug," Miley said. "Bugs have six legs, and this thing only has four."

           "Ain't so, Miley," Sam said. "Look at them real short legs stickin' outa its belly."

           "Them ain't legs," Miley said.

           "Then what are they?" Sam challenged.

           "That's enough!" the sheriff said. "We don't know if it's an insect or somethin' else. We won't know until the university guys study it."

           The other three men who had been netting the lake gathered around the dead instar and gawked. "I got a plastic dish in my truck that has a tight fittin' lid," one of the men said. "You can put that thing in it if you want, only I ain't pickin' it up."

           Following a tension-relieving laugh, the sheriff rolled the chimera over with a couple of twigs.

           "That thing ain't never gonna fly on them stubby wings," Miley said.

           "It doesn't have to fly," Sam said. "It can use its six legs to walk."

           "It ain't got but four," Miley said.

           "What about them little ones?" one of the men asked.

           "I said that's enough!" the sheriff repeated.

           "Oh, alright," Sam said, watching Miley smirk.

           Sheriff Dixon used the twigs to pick up the chimera and put it into the plastic dish. The owner of the dish quickly slapped the lid on, as though the bug—or whatever it was—would try to escape.

           "Bring them shells we netted outa the lake, too." The sheriff said. "We'll put all this stuff on ice until the university guys arrive."

           As the group started to disperse, Sheriff Dixon said, "One more thing. Nobody says anything about this—to anybody—until I say it's okay."

           Everyone nodded. "You understand me, Miley?" the sheriff asked.

           Miley just continued to walk toward his car.


           Miley Toms turned to the sheriff. "Why don't you tell Sam? He's the one who'll talk."

           "I'm tellin' you both; I'm telling alla you; nobody says 'boo' until I say so!"


           A scouting party located a stream where they could discard the casts of the last instar. As Vantu had directed, the dump was further from the apple cellar than either Brown's or Davenport's lake. In fact, it was downstream from the Davenport's. To avoid detection, the workers took a circuitous route around the lake. With the heightened awareness of the Earthlings, the Nevians were forced to work only in the dead of night.

           The encounter occurred on the third night. Not far from the Davenport's home, a pair of Nevians was ambushed by the Davenport's barn cat. Before they could tubulate the cat, one of the workers was snatched up by his carapace and shaken senseless. His companion panicked and fled to the apple cellar, scattering casts along his path.

           The death of the Nevian terrified the remainder of the landing party. They had been certain that tubulase would protect them from all predators regardless of size.

           "For tubulase to work," Vantu said, addressing the assembled landing party, "it must be deployed."

           "I don't care what you say," a worker shouted. "I'm not going out there again!"

           "Then you'll condemn our entire species—our entire planet—to death." Vantu said.

           Inaltera, who had been sitting to the right of Vantu, rose. "For any of us to ever see our families and friends again, our mission must succeed."

           Grumbles and groans emanated from the workers.

           "You were selected," Vantu reminded them, "on the basis of your determination, and—yes—even on your valor. Your fellow worker will be hailed as a hero upon our return home."

           Turning to the worker who'd witnessed the death, Inaltera asked, "Are you willing to continue your work for the good of our people?"

           Put to him that way, the worker could only answer in the affirmative.

           "Good!" Vantu said. "Then our work can continue."

           "It is too late now to retrieve the casts that were jettisoned, or even the body of our fellow worker," Inaltera said. "We'll just have to hope that they will not be discovered, and that we'll be able to retrieve them tomorrow night."


           "Sheriff, you'd better come right over and look at what our cat caught," Ellen Davenport said. "It ain't no Earthly creature." Ellen Davenport was more correct than she realized. Her cat had played with the Nevian corpse before carrying it to the house, where it proceeded to chew on the body. Even the cat's thrashing had failed to remove all of the Nevian's clothing; foot coverings and shreds of cloth still clung to the corpse.

           "This one's different from the others," the sheriff said

           "Others? There's others and you didn't warn us?" Ron Davenport asked.

           "Calm down, Ron!" the sheriff said. "We found something like this last week and the university guys are studyin' it right now."

           "So that's what Miley was hintin' at," Ron said.

           "What did Miley say about it?"

           "Nothin' really, Sheriff. He just acted like the cat that ate the canary. Said we might need more insecticide this season."

           "Well, this ain't no insect!" Ellen said. "No insect I ever seen wears shoes—and clothes."

           "I can't argue with that, Ellie. This is something else again."

           "So what're you gonna do about it, Sheriff?" Ron asked.

           Sheriff Dixon took off his hat and scratched his head. "The first thing I'm gonna do is swear you two to secrecy. You can't tell anybody - and I mean anybody - about this until I find out what's goin' on!"

           Ellen started to protest, but Ron shot her a look. "Okay, sheriff, then what?"

           "I'm gonna get the university guys up her to look at it, an' then go over every inch of your place, close as stink on…fish."

           "What about me?" Ellen asked. "What should I do?"

           "I'm bettin', Ellie, that you'll be entertainin' the university guys."

           The sheriff put on some rubber gloves—he'd started carrying them regularly—and picked up the Nevian corpse. "Smells funny." He turned it over, examining the wounds that the cat had inflicted, the shreds of clothing, and especially the shoes. "You got a zip-lock bag, Ellie?"

           Ellen didn't want the creature in her freezer, not even in a plastic bag, so Sheriff Dixon pulled a soup can out of the garbage and dropped the corpse in. Ellen obliged with some chipped ice from the freezer.


           The workers gave the Davenport farm wide berth the following night as they dumped the last casts farther downstream. A team was dispatched to look for the casts that had been dropped the night before, tubulase at the ready.

           "Are you certain that you got all of the lost casts?"

           None of the workers answered.

           "So, you're not certain," Vantu concluded.

           "By tonight it shouldn't matter," Inaltera said. "Some of the chimeras have already started to pupate. We've deactivated the programmable histones that will inhibit the bee genome."

           "But only a handful have produced chrysalides," Vantu said.

           "I'm sure that by tonight this place will be loaded with chrysalides, and in two days we'll have an army of Nevians."

           "Does that mean no more cast disposal?" one of the workers asked.

           Vantu surveyed the apple cellar, appraising its volume. A nod from Inaltera confirmed his assessment. "No more cast disposal," Vantu agreed. "We'll leave them here with the empty chrysalides."


           The university team had arrived at the Davenport farm and confirmed what the sheriff already knew. The creatures were intelligent beings, most likely of extraterrestrial origin. Sheriff Dixon immediately swore everybody to secrecy. On the advice of the scientists, the Davenports farm was quarantined, but over the objections of the scientists, Sheriff Dixon summoned several of the people from town who had already had contact with the creatures—at least with their discarded shells.

           When Sam Burt, Miley Toms, and Clem Hopper arrived, the sheriff briefed them on what was known about the creatures and the casts that had been found, once again swearing them to secrecy.

           "I've deputized a few of us who know what we're facing," the sheriff said. "We'll fan out to see if we can find any more of these things."

           "Or their shells," Miley added.

           "Or their shells," the sheriff confirmed.

           "We're off the regular channel, so nobody in town should hear out radio traffic. I still don't want any unnecessary chatter."

           The posse started to disperse when the sheriff stopped them. "One more thing. If you find anything, I don't want any mention of bugs or creatures or aliens. I want you to say, 'I found the lost calf'."

           Some of the university team had taken over the Davenport's farmhouse. Sheriff Dixon didn't want the scientists housed in town for fear that the local TV station—and then the whole county—would descend upon the farm.

           The Davenports were more than happy to oblige. They would be among the first to know what the creatures were, and most likely, they would be amply reimbursed by the university for their hospitality.

           Following more than an hour of small talk on the radio, which the sheriff attempted to quell, Sam Burt blurted out, "Sheriff, I found the calf… or at least part of it!"

           "Where are you, Sam?"

           "I figure I'm about a quarter mile downstream from Davenport's lake."

           "Stay put, Sam," the sheriff said. "We're headed your way."

           The search team converged on Sam's location, but not before encountering other casts. By the time the team assembled on the stream bank, three other casts had been located.

           "We put a stick in the ground and tied a rag around it whenever we found a… calf skin," Miley said.

           "You don't need to call them calf skins if we're not on the radio, Miley," Sam said.

           "But the sheriff said…"

           "Only on the radio, Miley," Sheriff Dixon said.

           "And I found the first one," Sam said.

           "And I found the first one na na na naa na," Miley mimicked.

           "So what are they, Doc?" the sheriff asked.

           One of the university team picked the cast up with forceps and rotated it so that he could examine it from all angles. "Frankly, I don't know what it is, exactly."

           "Whadda you man, not exactly?" Sam asked for them all.

           The scientist continued. "It's definitely insect-like, but it's not an insect cast." He raised the cast for all to see. "This shell is not made of the same material that essentially every insect on Earth uses as its exoskeleton."

           "Excuse me?" Sam said.

           "It means that it's not like any insect skin I've ever seen. It's not made of the same stuff."

           Well, that's some information, Sheriff Dixon thought. "What else do you know?" he asked.

           "We know from the previous casts that you sent us that whatever it is grows very rapidly. And not in the water."

           "You don't think it crawled outa the water?" Miley asked.

           "No," the scientist answered, "it's definitely not aquatic. It couldn't breathe underwater."

           "So what if it swam to the top and took a breath like a turtle?" Miley asked.

           "This creature is not a swimmer," the scientist said, rotating the creature so that Miley could see the slender legs—as though Miley would comprehend the significance.

           "Then why do we always find them near water?" the sheriff asked. "We even found some in the water."

           "My guess is that they don't live near the water, but maybe water has something to do with their molting. It could be; the chemical composition of the shell is different from chitin."

           "From what?" Sam asked.

           "Kitin'," Miley said. "Ain't you ever been kitin'?"

           "Not that kind of kitin'," the scientist said. "The kind that crab shells and beetle wings are made of."

           "What if somebody's just dumpin' them in the water, like cracked crab shells?" Miley asked.

           "You might be onto something, Miley," the sheriff said. "What do you think, Doc?"

           "I suppose it's possible," the scientist said, "but I can't imagine why."

           "Let's forget about motive for the time being," the sheriff said, "and see if we can find where they came from."

           "Did you tell him about the bees, sheriff?" Sam asked.

           "What about the bees?" the scientist asked.

           "A few weeks ago," the sheriff said, "about eleven hives of bees just up and disappeared. I can't see how it's related, though."

           "Well, I can," the scientist said. "The mouth parts on the early casts most closely approximated those of nectar gatherers."

           "What'd he say?" Miley asked.

           "He said the creatures eat like bees," Sam said.

           "No, not quite." The scientist continued. "The later casts show a major change. The mouth parts are still bee-like, but more like those of yellow-jacket hornets, what you call 'meat bees'."

           "So you think the disappearance is somehow related, Doc?" the sheriff asked.

           "I can't see how," the scientist said, "unless there was a massive mutation. No… I can't see how the disappearance is related."

           The scientist put the cast into a plastic bag. "Could you show me where you found the first cast? And I'd like to see the hives where the bees disappeared."

           "We found the first 'bugs' over by Brown's lake," the sheriff said. "The hives were scattered around several orchards."

           "You know, sheriff," Clem said, "there was some funny business at the school a while back that involved bees."

           "Before the disappearance?" the sheriff asked.

           "Yes, Sir," Clem answered. "Way before."

           "Okay, Clem," the sheriff said, "let's hear all of it."

           Clem looked at the group and felt foolish for bringing it up. "Not much to tell, really. My daughter came home from school one day and said that some bees had attacked a girl in the playground."

           "Did she say how badly the girl had been stung?" Miley asked.

           "That's the funny part… well, one of the funny parts, Miley. She wasn't stung at all."

           "So what's the other funny part?" the sheriff asked.

           Clem scratched his head self-consciously. "The girl said that she seen this silver globe with bees comin' outa it, an' then she said she seen some bugs—well, not really bugs—comin' outta that sphere."

           "Why didn't anybody tell me about this?" the sheriff asked.

           "Weren't no need to, Sheriff," Clem continued. "Next day she came down with the Chickenpox. Figured she was just seein' stuff from getting' sick. My Kathy came down with them the next week."

           "I need to talk with her," the sheriff said. "What's her name?"

           "Alicia… Alicia somethin'," Clem said.

           "Think, Clem. It's important."

           Now Clem's head scratching was born of confusion. "Carson… Carsten, Carlton; That's it, Carlton!"

           "Everybody stay put!" the sheriff said. He walked back to the Davenport's and got on the phone, asking the operator to connect him to the Carlton farm.

           "She's at school," Mrs. Carlton said. "What's this about?"

           "It's about those bees and the silver globe that Alicia saw. What did Alicia say about them, Mrs. Carlton?"

           "No need to concern yourself about that, sheriff. She was coming down with the Chickenpox—got them the next day. She was just terrified of the bees."

           "I'd like to talk with her, anyway," the sheriff said. "Could you bring her up to the Davenport farm on Brick Church Road?"

           "I suppose so, Sheriff. Is it important? Could it wait until she finishes school?"

           "It would be better if you brought her up as soon as you can. We think that Alicia may be able to solve a mystery."

           "Oh, I doubt that, Sheriff, but I'll get her out of school if you think I should."

           "I would certainly appreciate it, Mrs. Carlton.

           As soon as the sheriff hung up the phone, he turned to the scientists. "I know you don't like it, but if Alicia Carlton saw what we all think she saw, than she's already exposed to whatever it is you're tryin' to protect us from."

           One of the scientist who'd remained at the house, started to object, but the sheriff cut him off. "And that's final!"

           The posse checked the banks of the stream, but found no more casts. Although the sheriff wanted to search the area around Brown's lake, he'd decided to wait until he could talk to Alicia Carlton before widening the search.

           Back at the Davenport farm, the scientists had reached some tentative conclusions. "Their blood isn't based on iron like ours is."

           "So what's it based on?" the sheriff asked, as though he'd understood the statement,

           "I can't tell for certain until we analyze it in the lab, but my guess is that it's either copper or nickel."

           "And what does that tell you?"

           "Not much, really," the scientist admitted, "except that it's not from Earth."

           "Any idea where it is from?" the sheriff asked.

           "Well, Sheriff, I can tell that it's not from our solar system. Earth seems to be the only planet in the solar system that could support this life form."

           "So it's from outer space," the sheriff said incredulously.

           "It certainly looks that way, Sheriff. We'll know more after the analysis of blood and tissue samples.

           Mrs. Carlton arrived with a very shy Alicia in tow. She'd told her daughter that the sheriff wanted to ask her some questions about the day the bees attacked her.

           When Alicia was introduced to the sheriff and became the focus of attention, she surveyed the assembled grown-ups and asked, "Am I in trouble? Did I do something wrong?"

           The smiles and stifled laughs assured her that she was not in trouble, but at the same time deepened her embarrassment. "Nobody believed me before."

           "Well, we do now, Alicia," the sheriff said. "We most certainly do now. We'd like you to tell us what you saw that day."

           "You mean about the bees and all?"

           "Yes, Alicia," her mother said, brushing a hand through her daughter's hair. "And especially about the shiny sphere."

           "The one you said I made up?"

           "I'm sorry I didn't believe you, Alicia. I really believed that you'd only thought you'd seen the sphere because you were getting sick."

           "And the bugs," Alicia pressed her mother.

           "Yes, Dear, those too,"

           Alicia, now more self confident, turned to the sheriff. "I told everybody that the shiny ball was just there all-of-a-sudden, like."

           "How did it get there?" the sheriff asked.

           Alicia shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know… it just was, and then it wasn't."

           "Are you saying it suddenly appeared and then just as suddenly disappeared?" one of the scientists asked.

           "I'll ask the questions!" the sheriff snapped.

           Alicia faced the scientist. "You don't believe me either."

           "Oh, no, Sweetheart," the sheriff said, "we all believe you now. We just need you to tell us everything that happened."

           Alicia flashed a look at her mother. "Everything?"

           Mrs. Carlton smiled. "No, Dear, just what you saw. The rest is our secret."

           A relieved Alicia turned to the sheriff again. "A whole lot of bees came out of the shiny ball and buzzed all around me."

           "Yes, Alicia, we know that part," the sheriff said. "We'd like to know what else you saw."

           Once again, Alicia took a quick look at her mother, who nodded reassuringly. "Then some bugs… well, not really bugs—I don't know what they were—ran out of the shiny thing and went into the woods."

           Mrs. Carlton stroked her daughter's hair. "Tell them the rest, Dear."

           "One of them bug-things looked at me." Alicia surveyed the group for signs of disbelief and found none. "I know it looked at me."

           "What did the bug-things look like, Alicia?" the sheriff asked. One of the scientists started to retrieve the specimen, but the sheriff waved him off.

           "They were different colors," Alicia said. "I never told nobody that."

           The group drew in closer as though privy to a secret. One of the scientists asked what colors they were and the sheriff shot him a withering look.

           Alicia looked from the scientist to the sheriff. "Most of them were sort of gray, but the one that looked at me was kinda green."

           "Were there other green ones?" the sheriff asked.

           "A couple more, I think, but there were a lot more gray ones."

           "How many gray ones?" the scientist asked.

           "I won't warn you again!" the sheriff said. "You'll get your chance to ask questions when I'm through."

           Sheriff Dixon turned to Alicia. "Sorry, Sweetheart, he won't interfere again. You can go ahead and answer his question."

           Alicia screwed her face up. "I don't really know… maybe thirty."

           "And were they the same color all over?"

           "No!" Alicia shouted with self-discovery. "They weren't! They all had sort of brownish heads and I think their feet."

           "Their feet?" the sheriff asked. "How did they walk… like us or like bugs?"

           Alicia looked to her mother for comfort. "Not like us or like bugs."

           "Could you describe their walk or show us?" Mrs. Carlton asked.

           Alicia thought for a few seconds, feeling the pressure to respond. "More like bugs than like us, I guess, but not like ordinary bugs."

           Mrs. Carlton continued to stroke Alicia's hair. "How were they different from ordinary bugs, Dear?"

           Alicia paused again, searching her memory for a good example. For the first time since the interrogation began, a smile brightened her face. "You know how spiders will sometimes sorta stand up in front with the rest of their feet on the ground…"

           No one uttered a sound while Alicia groped for a better example.

           "No, not like a spider. More like a praying mantis! Like they almost walk like us, and they can carry stuff, but they're still just big bugs."

           "Are you saying that the things you saw walked on four of its legs like a praying mantis?" the sheriff asked.

           Alicia's smile disappeared. "I don't know. I couldn't see how many legs they had because they were in the grass. It's just that they didn't walk straight up like us, or crawl like a bug."

           One of the scientists let out an audible sigh. The sheriff was about to chastise him when he said sheepishly, "Sorry, Sheriff, I'm just relieved. I thought we were about to go down the wrong path."

           The sheriff nodded, and apologized to Alicia for the interruption. "Did you say that they were carrying something?"

           Alicia seemed to draw back into herself. "I never told nobody about that part because it was just too weird."

           She glanced at her mother to find that she was smiling back at her. Giving the sheriff her full attention, Alicia continued. "I think they were carrying things… maybe like boxes and stuff."

           The sheriff stole a quick look at one of the scientists, and returned his gaze to Alicia. "You never told us how big the bug-things were."

           "Bigger than a praying mantis… maybe twice as big."

           "Could you show us with your hands?" the sheriff asked.

           Alicia extended her arms timidly and adjusted the distance between her index fingers until they were about eight inches apart. "About this big, but they weren't all the same size. Some looked fatter than others."

           "You mean like fat and skinny people?" the sheriff asked.

           "No, not like that," Alicia said. After a moment's reflection, she continued. "You know how some fish are thin like snakes and others are fat like catfish? That's how they were."

           The scientists exchanged looks among themselves, but said nothing.

           "Okay, Alicia," the sheriff said, "what happened to the shiny sphere?"

           "Nobody believed this part, either."

           "Don't worry, Sweetheart, everybody here believes every word of your story."

           "It's not just a story," Alicia said. "Stories are made up."

           "Sorry," the sheriff said. "We know you didn't make it up."

           "The shiny ball just disappeared. Just like that."

           "Can you tell us anything at all about its disappearance?"

           Alicia just shook her head.

           "What about the grass?" Mrs. Carlton asked.

           "The grass?" the sheriff echoed.

           "It sorta laid down and then stood up and the ball was gone."

           "Where did the grass do that?" the sheriff asked.

           "Right where the ball was, " Alicia said. "Right where it disappeared."

           The sheriff looked at one of the scientist, who just shrugged.

           "Alright, Alicia," the sheriff said, "would you recognize these bug-things if you saw one again?"

           Alicia looked at her mother and then nodded.

           "We may have captured one," the sheriff said.

           Mrs. Carlton stopped stroking her daughter's hair, and Alicia cringed against her.

           "It's not pretty, Alicia," the sheriff said. "The Davenport's cat captured it and it's in pretty bad shape."

           Alicia clung to her mother, expectantly.

           "We'd like you to take a look and let us know if this is what you saw in the schoolyard."

           Alicia shook he head. With some difficulty, Mrs. Carlton disengaged herself from her daughter to face her. Holding Alicia by her shoulders, she said, "This is very important, Dear." Before continuing, Mrs. Carlton looked from the sheriff to the scientists for reassurance. "If you weren't the only person to see the bug-things alive, these people wouldn't be asking you to look at it."

           Once again, Alicia shook her head. Tears welled in her eyes.

           "Alicia, Dear," Mrs. Carlton said, "I'll be right her with you. She looked pointedly at the sheriff, who nodded nearly imperceptibly. "All you have to do is tell us if this is what you saw. Can you do that for us, Leesy?"

           When Alicia nodded, tears rolled down her cheeks and she wiped them away with her forearms. One of the scientists took the tray on which the bug-thing lay and approached the two Carltons. Alicia screamed and ran from her mother's grasp. "That's one of them!" she yelled, and broke into sobs.

           "How can you be sure it's the same as those you saw at school?" the scientist asked.

           "The eyes," Alicia answered, between sobs. "They're just like the one that looked at me."

           "That's all," Mrs. Carlton said, as much to reassure herself as her daughter.

           Suddenly the pregnant silence was broken; everyone seemed to be talking at once.

           "We gotta warn people!" Miley shouted.

           "What're we gonna do about 'em, sheriff?" Sam wanted to know.

           When Sheriff Dixon had reestablished order, he answered some questions with others. "What should we warn them about, Miley? They haven't done nothin'. What we're gonna do is find out all we can about them."

           "Like why they're here!" Clem said. "An' what they want. They didn't come for nothin'!"

           There was no disagreement with Clem Hopper. They did, indeed, need to find out why the bug-things were here.

           "Alright! Alright!" the sheriff shouted. "Let's see what we know."

           To gain some time for thought, Sheriff Dixon removed his hat and wiped his brow. "We know we have maybe thirty of them bug things…"

           "More than that, sheriff," one of the scientists said. "Those casts you've been finding… they're from larvae, and we don't know how many larvae there are."

           "Or how long they take to mature," another scientist added.

           "Right," the first scientist said, "but from the casts that you've found, we know that they have to undergo pupation before they mature."

           "How do you know that?" the sheriff asked.

           "Each of the successive molts—I'm assuming they're successive—is distinct. None of them look like the adult form—assuming that this specimen is an adult."

           "You mean like caterpillars?" Miley asked, pleased to demonstrate his knowledge of bugs.

           "Almost certainly like caterpillars… or maybe like grasshoppers… I'm not sure. One thing we do know," the scientist continued, "is that if this is the normal size of an adult, there shouldn't be many molts between the last casts we found and the adult form."

           "What does that mean?" the sheriff asked.

           "It means," the scientist said, "that there may soon be more adults… potentially many more."

           "Like how many?" the sheriff asked.

           "Hard to say," the scientist said, "but if we use bees as a model, there could be thousands of new adults."

           "But whatta they want?" Clem asked again, looking to the others for support. "I say they want our uranium, or our oil, or our gold… Maybe it's gold they want."

           One of the scientists spoke up. "If they have the technology to reach Earth, we can't have any idea what they want. Two hundred years ago, we would have thought that they wanted our coal; a hundred years ago, it would have been gold; then oil; now uranium."

           The sheriff glared at Clem, who asked the question anyway. "So whatta you think they want?"

           "Can't tell," the scientist answered. "It could be something as simple as wood, or even air or water. There's just no way to know."

           "Alright! Here's what we do know. We've got aliens—maybe thirty and maybe thousands—holed up somewhere around here, and they want something, but we don't know what."

           The sheriff stood up and stretched away the weight that was squarely on his shoulders. "We can call in the National Guard to find these things—and all hell breaks loose—or we can find them ourselves."

           "And then what?" Sam Burt asked.

           "Damned if I know, Sam. I'm makin' it up as I go along."

           Laughter broke the tension. "Given the state of development of the last larval stage," one of the scientists said, "I think we ought to be looking for them now."

           "Right!" Sheriff Dixon said. "We found shells at Brown's lake, here, and along the stream. They gotta be near one of them places. You got a map, Ron?"

           Ron Davenport retrieved a county map from the hutch and spread it on the kitchen table. "All them places are nearly in a straight line."

           "What about the school?" Alicia asked.

           Ron drew a circle around the school and connected the circle to his lake and to Brown's lake with straight lines. "I'm bettin' it's in this triangle."

           "Yeah?" Miley asked. "How come nobody seen them?"

           "Good point, Miley," the sheriff said. "Where in the triangle could thousands of these things be hiding?"

           "Not much there but orchards," Ron said.

           "And barns," Sam added. "Any abandoned barns in the triangle?"

           "Far as I know," Sheriff Dixon answered, "everybody's still usin' all their barns."

           "What about the Booth's farm? Sam asked. "Nobody's moved in there since they left."

           Ron found the Booth farm on the map and circled it. "Ain't in the triangle. Pretty far from it."

           "Let's forget the Booth place for now," the sheriff said.


           "I can't believe it!" Inaltera said. "It's just not possible!"

           The landing party watched as at first a few and then hundreds of chrysalides released their adult Nevians. Only they weren't Nevians, not quite. Each of the transformed adults—those that survived pupation—was monstrous caricature of a Nevian.

           Most of the surviving mutants had grotesquely disfigured heads—multiple eyes, no eyes, eyes where chemoreceptors should have sprouted. Many had deformed legs with which they dragged themselves out of their chrysalides.

           "Is there anything we can do?" Vantu asked.

           "Nothing!" Inaltera replied, fear and disillusionment stretched across her face. "It's a complete disaster."

           "Why didn't we see this back in the laboratory?" Vantu demanded to know.

           "Sure," Inaltera said, "we had a few mutations; that's expected, but nothing like this— nothing!"

           Vantu surveyed the expanding menagerie of Nevian-like creatures. "Can we still use them? Are they capable of operating the deuterium extractors?"

           Inaltera had tried to communicate with the most Nevian-like mutants. "They can't even care for themselves. They are completely subnormal."

           Vantu fixated a mutant with a Nevian face. "What about those with normal heads?"

           "No better! Even those that look normal have no apparent intellectual capacity."

           "Can we train them?" Vantu asked.

           "Train them? Inaltera shouted. "We can't even feed them!"

           "What do you mean 'feed them'?"

           "Look around!" Inaltera shouted, panic now overriding her professionalism. "They're drooling idiots! They can't even feed themselves!"

           Vantu shook her violently. "Don't break down now! I … we need to straighten out this mess!"

           Inaltera had been sorting possibilities in the back of her mind. "There's no straightening it out. They're beyond recovery. Something corrupted their neural anlage."

           "How can you know that?" Vantu asked.

           The wave of panic had passed, and Inaltera recomposed herself. "I don't exactly know it, but look at what we've got. All of the defects we can see, and the intellectual defects, point to impaired development of neural epithelium."

           Vantu continued to watch as still more mutants emerged from their chrysalides. "How did this happen? I repeat, why didn't you catch this in the laboratory?"

           Still surveying the developing disaster, Inaltera turned slowly to face her mate. "This is not my fault… Pet! We saw no neural anlage mutations in the laboratory! None! Whatever happened, happened on Earth!"


           "You know, Sheriff," Sam Burt said, "there might be a place for them to hide in the Brown's orchard."

           Ron Davenport tapped a finger on the tiny square that identified the Brown's residence on the map. "Here's their house, a couple of barns, their cold storage… all these places have people in them."

           "Yeah, I know, Ron," Sam said, "but when I was a kid, I used to play at the Brown's place."

           "So?" Ron asked.

           "I'm just tryin' to think," Sam said. "It was a long time ago."

           He played with his watch while his mind reviewed his past experiences. "Dick Burdick and—Dick's dead now—Dick and I used to dare each other to spend the night in Brown's apple cellar."

           "Nobody's got apple cellars anymore," Miley said.

           "Well, Miley," Sam said, "you're right that nobody ever uses them anymore. There was even one at your place before you bought it. But, they're still around."

           "What about Brown's?" Sheriff Dixon asked.

           "I ain't been there in years, but I remember that Brown didn't build his cold storage where his apple cellar was, so it could still be there."

           "Ellie," the sheriff said, "could you get Jeremy Brown on the phone? Tell him I want to talk to him. Tell him it's important."

           "It musta been more than thirty years ago, Sam," Clem said.

           "More like forty," Miley said.

           "Miley, you weren't even here forty years ago."

           "Don't make no difference, Sam" Miley said. "People ain't used them for more than forty years."

           Sam just shook his head. "Have it your way, Miley."

           "An' besides," Miley said, "there ain't no abandoned buildings in Brown's orchard. We'd a seen it on the map."

           "You really don't know squat about apple cellars, Miley. Most of them were dug into the side of hills, some were dug into the ground and looked like just a roof layin' on the ground. Nobody built them like barns. No point."

           Ellen stuck her head into the kitchen. "I've got Jeremy on the line, Sheriff,"

           "Hey, Jeremy, Sheriff Dixon here."

           "What can I do for you, Sheriff? Ellie said it was important."

           "It is, Jeremy, but it may not seem like it to you. When was the last time you looked in your apple cellar?"

           "My apple cellar? This is about my apple cellar?"

           "Then it's still there," the sheriff said, as much question as statement.

           "Last time I looked it was."

           "And when was that, Jeremy?"

           "Gotta be three… four years, Sheriff. What's this all about?"

           "We'd like to come over and take a look."

           "In my apple cellar? Sure, I guess so, but what are you looking for?"

           "We'll tell you about it when we get there." The sheriff looked at the group in Davenport's kitchen. "There'll be six of us."

           "Six? Who's with you?"

           "I'll introduce them to you when we get there. And, Jeremy… don't go out to your apple cellar until we get there!"

           "Six," Miley said. "There's ten of us here. Ain't you takin' the scientists?"

           Sheriff Dixon scratched his head and replaced his hat. "I'm takin' three of the scientists with me. One'll stay here with the Davenports."

           "Who else if goin'?" Miley asked. "Ain't all of us goin'?"

           "You're not goin', Miley," the sheriff said. "You're too excitable. I can't handle that right now."

           "Too excitable? Me? Too excitable?" Miley shouted. "You ain't seen the half of it, Sheriff!"

           Miley started for the door, planning to hop into his pickup and beat the others to Brown's apple cellar.

           "Hold on, Miley!" the sheriff said. "That was a test and you failed."

           Miley ripped his hat off and threw it on the kitchen floor. "You know what you can do with your test!"

           "I need you here, Miley," the sheriff said.


           "I said I need you here. You're in charge of communications. We need to stay in radio contact, and I need somebody who's seen all the shells and the bug-thing. You're the only one I've got."

           Miley picked up his hat and dusted it off on his shirtsleeve. "Oh, alright, Sheriff. I see what you mean."

           Jeremy Brown was waiting on his porch when Sheriff Dixon's entourage pulled into his driveway. "You sure have gotten my curiosity up, sheriff." He handed each of the men a flashlight. "Some of these ain't none too bright, but they should work."

           "Get your camera, too, Jeremy," the sheriff said. We'll probably need it."

           Jeremy led the group to a shed where he parked his crew cab dually pickup. "It's a ways out, an' off the beaten path," he said, as the six men slid into the truck. Clem Hopper jumped into the pickup bed.

           After a bumpy five-minute drive, Jeremy said, "There it is."

           "Yep," Sam said. "Just like I remember it."

           Clem Hopper craned his neck to see what they were looking at. "That? That's just part of an old barn—a wall, maybe that somebody dragged here."

           "Wrong, Clem," Jeremy said as he exited the pickup. "That's the only wall of the apple cellar. The rest's inside the hill."

           Sheriff Dixon was the first to notice that a narrow path had cleaved the grass in front of the steeply inclined wall. "It looks like we may have hit pay dirt." For the first time that anyone could remember, Sheriff Dixon drew his service revolver.

           As the group approached the ancient facade, Sam pointed out that a few of the lower boards had been swung aside, creating several small doorways into the apple cellar. The door, which at one time had slid along tracks had collapsed onto the slanted surface, its hasp still locked.

           "Does anybody else small something funny?" one of the scientists asked.

           "Now that you mention it…" Sam said. The others nodded.

           "Termites!" Clem said. "Smells like termites when they swarm. Same sickly-sweet smell."

           Sheriff Dixon told the others to stay back while he approached the door to the apple cellar. He pulled the gutter spike that secured the hasp and pried up the rusty hasp-plate, and using the plate as a handle, he inched the door open.


           Thousands of mutant Nevians slithered aimlessly among the remaining chrysalides, from which more mutants were emerging. The landing party frantically dragged discarded chrysalides to the rear of the apple cellar, their efforts largely thwarted by the mindless mutants.

           "It's hopeless," one of the workers shouted. "There's not a mind among them. They make me sick just to look at them!"

           Eventually, all of the landing party came to the same conclusion, as one after another, they relinquished their task.

           "They're right, you know," Inaltera said. "It is hopeless. We—all of us—are doomed."

           Vantu surveyed the unfolding disaster. "Maybe not all of us."

           "What do you mean, Vantu, not all of us?"

           "We could stay here on Earth, we and the landing party."

           Inaltera grabbed Vantu and shook him. "And what? Live in one of their zoos? Live in the woods and be preyed upon by every carnivore in sight? And don't forget, I'm the only female. There is no possibility that our species could survive."

           "What about our brood?" Vantu asked.

           "Our brood? This is my brood! And when they hatch, I will not let them live to be imprisoned on Earth, to be viewed as freaks!"

           "I believe that I have something to say about what happens to our brood," Vantu said.

           "You are so ignorant! I can't believe I ever mated with you!"

           "What do you mean, ignorant?" Vantu asked. "Ignorant about what?"

           Inaltera swept an appendage. "Look around you! Something on Earth caused these mutations. Do you think my brood would be spared?"

           Vantu said nothing.

           "Now you see, Vantu, for the first time that all of us, even future generations if they were possible, are already as good as dead. There is only one course of action open to us."

           Vantu looked to where the landing party was gathered near the water source. "What about them? Don't they have any say in the matter?"

           "Can't you see, Vantu, that they already know their fate? Ask them; go ask them!"

           Vantu instructed the landing party to tubulase all of the mutants and the remaining chrysalides: and with feelings of deep regret, disgust, and sorrow, the workers completed their task. One worker, the de facto leader of the landing party, reported to Vantu. "Now there are only Nevians here. We know that we will never see home again, and most of us have decided not to live out our lives here on Earth."

           Inaltera had been right, as usual, Vantu thought. He nodded absently. "What are your plans?"

           "No one will be left behind," the worker said, "and the remaining tubulase will be decomposed.

           Vantu looked longingly at Inaltera. "Then it's over."


           Sheriff Dixon inched the wooden door back far enough to see into the apple cellar. "Whew!"

           "Whadda you see?" Sam Burt asked.

           The sheriff moved back from the narrow opening. "I can't see much of anything yet, but the termite smell is pretty powerful."

           "Oh, yeah," Clem said, "that's it, alright," as the odor reached the rest of the group.

           "Jeremy," the sheriff said, "I can't hold my gun and the flashlight, and still slide open this door. I need you to slide the door for me."

           Using both hands, Jeremy Brown was more successful than the sheriff in sliding the trackless door.

           "That's enough!" the sheriff said and shined his light into the apple cellar, sidearm at the ready.

           Jeremy peeked over the sheriff's shoulder. "Good God! There must be thousands of them!"

           The others rushed to the door to look in.

           "Not so fast!" the sheriff shouted. "We don't know what's in there yet!"

           As if on cue, the sheriff's radio crackled into life. "Did you find anything, yet?" Miley asked.

           "Get off the radio, Miley! I'll call you when I find somethin'!"

           Clem Hopper helped Jeremy slide the door back until the entry was wide enough to admit a human. The termite smell nearly overwhelmed the group, but their curiosity won out. Seven beams of light pierced the interior.

           After several minutes of scanning the contents of the apple cellar, Sheriff Dixon moved to the doorway. "I'm goin' in. The rest of you wait until I tell you it's okay for you to come in."

           They watched as the sheriff moved among the thousands of corpses, discarded casts, and piles of empty chrysalides, many of them still enveloping their pupae. Finally, the sheriff signaled the others to enter the apple cellar.

           "They sure stink!" Jeremy said.

           "But they haven't been dead long," one of the scientists said. "There's no aroma of decomposition."

           "Unless they decompose differently from the way we do," the other scientist said, "and that's what we smell."

           "Take some pictures, Jeremy," the sheriff said.

           As Jeremy started to photograph the contents of the apple cellar, the sheriff keyed his radio. "Miley, I need you to send Ron to Bernstein's Rentals and get us some floodlights and a couple of generators."

           "What'd you find, Sheriff?"

           "Did you hear what I said, Miley?"

           "Yeah, I heard, but what did you find?"

           "Miley," the sheriff said, "we got us a whole herd of dead calves."

           "Criminy! Sheriff, I'm comin' out there!"

           "Miley! Sit tight! I need you right where you are!"

           "Oh, alright, Sheriff, I'll get Ron workin' on the lights."

           "An' Miley?"

           "Yeah, Sheriff?"

           "Tell Ron to tell Bernstein that I need the lights. Don't tell him anything else."

           "Check!" Miley said as he unkeyed his radio.


           The lights revealed the extent of the horror. Before the day ended, network TV had turned Brown's orchard into a media circus. Sheriff Dixon called in the National Guard to cordon off the area and to maintain some semblance of control. Our first contact with an alien species had ended disastrously.


           The First International Conference on Extra-Terrestrial Physiology was convened at the National Institutes of Health. The best minds from universities and laboratories worldwide had been unable to determine the cause of death of the alien species. Disseminate cellular destruction was evident in each of the corpses, but no causative agent for the massive apoptosis could be identified.

           One bright spot at the conference was an announcement that in every mutant studied thus far, the teratogenic and mutagenic agent appeared to be a viral genome that had intercalated into the DNA of the alien species. Sequencing the intercalated viral DNA revealed the virus to be Herpes Varicella Zoster, the Chickenpox virus.




copyright 2006 Tom Piantanida.

Tom Piantanida is a consultant to medical instrument companies in Northern California. He received Honorable Mention in 2005 from the Writer's Digest for his short stories and has recently been published in The First Line and Today's Feature. Two of his short stories will be published in Midici Books and Skive Magazine in 2006. He has written more than a dozen short stories about a character growing up in the slums of New Jersey in the late 1940s; four Nick Shrader, Private Eye mysteries; several science fiction stories; and one screenplay.

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